By chance, while browsing IMDB, I stumbled upon a review of the film adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s book “Silence,” directed by Martin Scorsese. While some consider this to be Scorsese’s finest cinematic work, others deem it his longest and most tedious (though whether these critics have read the eponymous novel is perhaps another story).
It’s well-known that Martin Scorsese himself has always expressed great respect for this literary work. There’s a story about him preparing for decades to make a film based on this novel, intending to faithfully transfer Endo’s work onto the silver screen. I’m curious whether he succeeded in this endeavor?
I read the novel a long time ago and think I had a rather neutral stance towards it. It’s not excluded that youth played a role in this perception, as a re-reading (now, many years later) has (perhaps) given me a proper insight into this book.
So, let’s begin. 🙂
The 17th century. A Portuguese priest, Sebastião Rodrigues, arrives (or rather, smuggles himself) into Japan. His motivation is clear. He is shaken by the news that his spiritual teacher and mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira, has become an apostate (i.e., renounced his faith), which also greatly disturbs his church. Sebastião comes to Japan to find out what really happened to his mentor and to provide spiritual aid and support to the so-called “kakure Kirishitan” (hidden Christians).
The 17th century was, after all, a period of severe persecution of Christians in Japan. People were not allowed to publicly declare themselves as Christians or to confess or perform Christian church rituals. Christians were often arrested, tortured (often finding their deaths), and forced to renounce their Christian faith by stepping on fumie (namely, a stone or wooden image/icon of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary). European priests were (at least officially) almost nonexistent.
Not exactly the best place for a Christian priest’s career advancement…
What really happened to Cristóvão Ferreira, how Sebastião Rodrigues fared in Japan (if he managed at all), I leave for you to discover.
Now, I would like to talk more about the essence of the book itself.
The novelist, Shusaku Endo, was a Japanese Roman Catholic and is considered perhaps the first Japanese writer to objectively write about Christianity in Japan. Moreover, the novel was published in 1966, so you can imagine the storm his work “Silence” stirred up.
For me, the main motif of the book is the idea of the “Silent God” or the “Absence of God.” As time passes during the main character’s stay in Japan (which mostly involves fleeing and hiding from Japanese authorities or spending time in their prisons), he increasingly wonders why God remains silent to the cries of this poor, Catholicized people. Is strong faith alone not enough to bring about change and enlighten the authorities?
Later, when our main character is captured by the authorities and enters into frequent conversations with Japanese dignitaries on the topic of Christianity and whether Christianity even has a place in Japan, and also witnesses the torture of the Christian populace to renounce their faith, the questions only accumulate.
Why does God, in all his love and gentleness, neither want to see nor hear the sufferings of the people? Why are priests forced to renounce their faith by having to watch the torture of poor Japanese peasants? Should one stubbornly persist in one’s faith and beliefs… or should one renounce faith to save the innocent? Is renouncing faith for the sake of saving others actually proof of love for God? Are we strong in our beliefs in our faith only while we are on familiar ground and in our comfort zone, and as soon as we step into the “swamp” (a term often used in this book for Japan), then perhaps we see reality as it truly is? And many other questions will arise for our protagonist (and maybe for you) throughout this novel.
The novel is, so to speak, divided into two parts. The first half of the novel is more in the form of letters/reports that Sebastião writes to the heads of his church, describing his adventures, happenings in Japan, and the thoughts/dilemmas that trouble him. The second part is written in the third person, where we still follow Sebastião’s (mis)adventures (including his capture), only then he doesn’t seem to be in a position to write his letters (I assume saving his neck was a priority then 😅).
I must share an interesting point with you.
You know how it is when you deeply connect with a literary character (just think of Andreas Jeger). Now, I really don’t know if it was the author’s intention (or maybe it’s just me), but, regarding Sebastião Rodrigues and his journey, I somehow remained neutral towards him throughout reading the book… to say, objective. I might even have judged him a bit for his overly naive idealistic notions, which caused many innocent people to suffer. Perhaps I was also influenced by his naive blind faith in religion and his belief that quoting various gospels could outsmart any force. Or maybe his struggle to accept other opinions. Or maybe it’s just me. 🙂 But, after all, we are talking about 17th century Japan.
All in all, definitely an interesting novel, which can be much discussed and debated.
I will definitely watch the movie in the coming period… maybe I’ll even comment on it here on the blog? 🙂
And you, dear readers: What is your opinion on the spread of Christianity to far Eastern countries at that time?
(NOTE: This review has no religious background; it is purely the blog author’s impression of the book itself. Regardless of religions and religious beliefs, the blog author believes that every religion should be respected, or at least be tolerant towards it 🙂)